By Karen D’Souza
The Mercury News
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) More than 70 percent of tech employees in the Valley are foreign born. But for many, the journey will not end there. Instead, they’ll put in a few years and then move on to the next country.
The Mercury News
Dad is from Poland, mom comes from the Philippines, and the kids think of Scotland as home. For now, they live in Fremont, Calif.
The globe-trotting adventure of the Kruczek family is one part of the story of H-1B and other visas that rarely gets told.
With the tech industry’s well known reliance on international workers, the corresponding rise in nomadic global families is changing not just the course of their lives, but also the nature of communities.
Highly skilled foreign workers with in-demand specialties come to the Bay Area, long one of the most diverse places in the country, for high salaries and career challenges and often bring their families with them.
More than 70 percent of tech employees in the Valley are foreign born, according to a report based on 2016 census data. But for many, the journey will not end there. Instead, they’ll put in a few years and then move on to the next country.
“Immigrants used to stay here or go back home, but the shifting economy has created a class of workers who are multinational. They are no longer tethered to one country,” said professor Anna Sampaio, a specialist in immigration and transnationalism at Santa Clara University. “They are really global workers.”
That economic shift, fueled by the tech sector, means these families often are prosperous and have little trouble keeping up with the high cost of living in the Bay Area. But they face other challenges, like new schools, new cultures, finding new friends and trying to fit in. Uprooting a whole family causes upheaval a single worker doesn’t have to grapple with.
“In your 20s, you can move anywhere,” said Tomasz Kruczek, an electronic engineer who works for NCR and lives in Fremont on an L-1 visa. “Once there are kids, it is harder.”
His son Gabriel, 8, is friendly and smart with a knack for building wooden race cars, but he had a rocky time saying goodbye to Scotland, where the family lived for 13 years. He left behind a small school and a tight-knit group of buddies that’s been tough to recapture. His sister Isabella, a 7-year-old who likes to play hide-and-seek, has settled in with much more ease.
“Gabriel is still struggling to adjust. At his old school, everybody knew each other and they grew up together,” said Kruczek, 37, who moved the family to Fremont two years ago. “Sometimes now he doesn’t want to go to school.”
Kruczek also misses Scotland. They haven’t yet decided whether they will go back, but he definitely thinks of himself as a “global citizen.”
Tamsin Ing made the move to the Bay Area from Australia when her husband, Matt, landed a plum engineering job at Tesla about four years ago. It’s been a great opportunity for him. The rest of family tagged along for the ride, which has its trade-offs.
“Moving to a new culture is mentally draining, since you have to make new friends again,” said the Fremont mother of two, who already had moved once before, to Australia from England. “The worst part is being so far from friends and family.”
The transition was roughest for 11-year-old Charlotte, who missed her best friend, the beaches in Australia and even the spiders that scared her. All of it was suddenly gone.
“It was hardest for her as she had no concept of having to start fresh. Everyone in her life had been there forever,” said Ing, 42, who rents out the home the family owns in Australia. “It took her a year to adjust.”
Putting down roots is off the table for now. In a global tech economy, you go where the gigs are.
“I don’t think we plan the future that much more than in two year increments, our visa length,” said Ing, who is in the U.S. on an E-3 visa for workers from Australia in specialty occupations and their families.
For others, the call of home will always be loud and clear. Parul Naresh had come to America several times before, doing stints in the Midwest with her husband Guarav, who is in IT, but they always returned home to India. She finally agreed to stay on longer when he landed a job at Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco. That hasn’t made it any easier on her, however.
“No matter how long I live here, I don’t feel like I belong,” she said.
Even after six years, she yearns for her relatives and her old way of life. She has also found it difficult to pursue her work as a textile artist here.
“In IT, you can go anywhere, but for me, it is a struggle,” said Naresh, 37, whose husband is here on an H-1B visa. “Sometimes I feel stuck.”
Communities as a whole also can feel stressed by so much impermanence. The days of living on the same street and working for the same company for decades are long gone in today’s economy. That can unsettle people with deep roots.
“It’s sure harder to get to know your neighbors than it used to be,” said Don Lessard, 71, who has lived in Fremont for 50 years. He and his girlfriend Debbie Ikeda go the extra mile, helping the elderly take out the garbage and getting traffic signs put in. “We try to be friendly. We wave at everybody, but not everybody waves back.”
They fear the culture of their little town has changed forever, in part because people don’t settle down and stay like they used to. The couple recently attended a social mixer in their neighborhood and were disappointed by how few residents showed up.
“We always feel like somebody has got to make an effort, so why not us?” said Ikeda, 58. “But a lot of people didn’t come. It felt like they couldn’t be bothered. It was sad.”
Sampaio agreed that the vagaries of the global economy can undermine people’s attachment to any one place.
“You do see the rise in the old tensions between the native born and the foreign born,” said Sampaio, who is chair of Ethnic Studies at Santa Clara University. “When you can hire from anywhere on the globe, then labor becomes disposable. This is not an economy that rewards loyalty. It’s very transitory, and that make can people feel unstable.”
But that transitory nature has some benefits. It gives these workers the chance to shop around for a place they want to call home. One family recently hopped from Spain to Newark to Germany in the span of a few years, with two small children. Having to stick together on the go can make a family bond stronger.
Ing said being a tribe of their own has “made us closer as a family.”
It also made them realize that a sense of community isn’t about where you are.
“To me, people make a place home, not really the location,” Ing said.